Christmas comes early for Adopt A Doctor

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Few Brunonians may read Yankee magazine, but when the regional publication featured Rajiv Kumar ’05 MD’09 two weeks ago as one of its “2007AngelsAmong Us,” the small piece prompted readers to give $5,000 to the Adopt A Doctor nonprofit Kumar founded as a Brown undergraduate.

The organization, which Kumar co-founded in June 2003 to help “reverse the brain drain in Africa,” currently gives 12 doctors in Liberia, Malawi, Mali and Sierra Leone $100 per month to enable them to stay and practice medicine in their home countries, in exchange for a seven-year commitment to stay in the country.

Kumar thinks the readers’ generosity may be thanks to the impending holiday season. “(The Yankee) article came at the right time for us,” he said. “Word of mouth is a fascinating thing. You never know how someone will hear about you.”

Kumar, who is enrolled in the Program in Liberal Medical Education, first conceived of Adopt A Doctor during a summer job after his sophomore year. As part of his long-standing interest in international health, Kumar was researching health care in the developing world with Ray Rickman, former state representative.

While learning about the state of health care in Africa, Kumar developed an interest in “alleviating the lack of access” to care. He co-founded Adopt A Doctor with Rickman – and the program, of which Kumar is now chairman, has helped thousands of patients in Liberia, Malawi, Mali and Sierra Leone since then, he said.

Though there are a number of medical schools in Africa, doctors often have little incentive to remain in Africa after they graduate, according to Kumar. Over 90 percent leave, many responding to a shortage of doctors in other countries. Canada even has a formal recruiting program for African doctors. “It’s kind of appalling,” Kumar said.

The high number of departing doctors has led to a shortage in Africa, where there can be up to as many as 100,000 people per doctor. In Liberia, Kumar said, there are four million people and only 25 qualified doctors. The situation is so dire that it is better for doctors to become even a taxi driver in a wealthier nation than to remain at home.

“We get requests from doctors saying, ‘We want to stay,’ ” Kumar said. “It’s a very modest request – a hundred dollars,” he added.

Despite the vast aid Western nations provide to Africa in the form of medication, supplies and equipment, few organizations directly sponsor local doctors, Kumar said. “$100 goes so far in Mali – it allows a doctor not to go hungry,” Kumar said. “It’s impossible to take care of patients when you’re hungry yourself.”

Adopt A Doctor’s goal is to “serve as a demonstration that funding local doctors is possible, efficient and effective,” said Kumar, who hopes that other larger organizations might adopt the same model.

The organization’s efforts have already produced a change in some people’s daily lives, Kumar said. For example, residents in rural areas who previously had to travel to government hospitals in cities for HIV retroviral drugs can now receive them from sponsored doctors in their own towns. Kumar said he hopes this is the beginning of a larger change, as many people in these areas cannot afford trips to the city for health care.

Kumar spent the summer of 2006 in Mali volunteering at an HIV clinic in a poor section of the capital city. “It just drove home for me that what we’re doing is amazing and worthwhile,” he said.

Adopt A Doctor also sponsored 25 doctors, nurses, medics and child psychologists who traveled to Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami to provide free medical care to those affected, using a $50,000 grant from the Do Something organization.

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